A Third Alternative in Pakistan

Imran Khan addresses a huge crowd at a rally in Pakistan.

Extremism, corruption and communalism have brought Pakistan to the verge of bankruptcy. People have lost faith in the two major political parties: the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League (PML). An additional reason people have become disillusioned toward these parties is their subservient behavior towards the United States. In this political scenario, people are looking for a viable third option, an alternative that could pull the country out of this quagmire. Perhaps this is the reason they are looking to former cricketer Imran Khan as a troubleshooter.

Khan has been considered a hero by the masses since 1992 when the Pakistan cricket team won the World Cup under his captaincy. After his retirement from cricket, Khan started participating in social activities. Fifteen years ago, he constituted his political party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), using his popularity as a cricketer to help him gain political ground. But it was not so easy. His party was routed in elections. But now things seem to be changing, and the people of Pakistan seem to be gravitating towards Khan.

The increasing popularity of the PTI can be attributed to many factors, a major one being the economic collapse of Pakistan due to corrupt politics and policies, which have been at work for the last six decades. Recently, the run of 106 major trains had to be stopped due to lack of railway funds. Many power-producing stations have stopped working for the same reason. U.S. funding has also been circumscribed since tensions between Islamabad and Washington arose over Operation Abbottabad and the Pak Army's "inaction" against insurgent groups on the Af-Pak border. Added to this, Pakistan had to face nature's fury in the form of floods, which rendered millions of people homeless and led to the loss of billions of rupees.

Pakistani people are also unhappy with the negative global image of Pakistan. Repeated coup d'états have put a question mark on the validity and viability of Pakistan's traditional democratic system and political parties, thus pushing people to look for a political alternative. Cashing in on this alienation, Khan has managed to attract people; however, it remains unclear whether Khan will be able to deliver, as the problems the country faces are large. More than 100,000 foreign soldiers are combating the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan, and people oppose the repeated U.S. drone strikes on Pakistan border territories that continue to claim the lives of innocent people. The Pakistani government and Army have done nothing but paid lip service in the name of opposing this U.S. practice. Khan has echoed the people's sentiments, but that of course is merely a first step.

Another factor contributing to Khan's increasing popularity is the issue of Kashmir. At his gigantic rally at Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore, where he condemned the U.S. drone attacks, Khan also denounnced the "unjustified" presence of Indian troops on the Indian side of Kashmir, though he stopped short of using the word "occupied." Sounding somewhat like Jamaat-ud-Dawah chief and mastermind of the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attack Hafiz Saeed, Khan said, "I want to tell India that it will get nothing by deploying 700,000 troops in the Kashmir valley." He said that no army could provide solutions to a country's woes. He asked if the United States succeeded in Afghanistan. When the Americans couldn't succeed in Afghanistan, how can India think of controlling Kashmir? Khan said that his party stands with Kashmiris and will continue to support their cause of freedom. From such provocative statements, it is evident that Khan is also trying to exploit extremist and anti-Indian sentiment among the Pakistani people to broaden his mass appeal.

General elections in Pakistan are likely to be held in 2013. PTI will try over these two years to establish itself as a third alternative. The ground of Minar-e-Pakistan, where Khan managed to pull such a huge crowd, holds special significance. This is the spot where the Muslim League passed the resolution for the creation of Pakistan in 1940. This is the second time since then that such a huge crowd has gathered on this ground. Middle classes, who usually stay away from political activities, formed a major part of this mass.

While the success of this rally will boost the prospects of the PTI, overall positive coverage by the media will also help Khan with his image. But the main problem is that there is no other big leader in his party than Khan himself. It cannot be said how much it would benefit the PTI if some leaders from the PPP and the PML crossed over to it. Only the elections in 2013 will tell whether and to what extent this huge crowd will turn into votes, and whether Khan will be able to establish a solid third party in the politics of Pakistan.